Why I Detest The Term 'Human Pacifier'

by Wendy Wisner
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LEFT: KrystynaTaran/Getty; RIGHT: MarkoNOVKOV.png/Getty

All babies are different when it comes to breastfeeding, but both of my sons breastfed pretty much all the freaking time. There were days they nursed every 30-45 minutes, no joke. It wasn’t because I had milk supply issues, or because they were difficult babies – nothing like that. They were happy to nurse, I was happy to nurse them, and they grew and thrived. My body, my babies, my choice.

Eventually, the “nursing every two seconds” thing wasn’t the norm anymore. However, for a very long time, my sons nursed “for comfort.” Neither of them took a pacifier, and when they wanted to suck for comfort, which all babies do, they came to my breast for that. Again, this is what worked for us, and for some moms who breastfeed, pacifiers are the answers. Other kids will suck on their fingers, or find comfort in a blanket, a lovey, or whatever.

I’m all about what works for a particular mom and baby. No judgments there.

During the course of breastfeeding my kids, I would often encounter the term “human pacifier.” It definitely applied to people like me. As in, “If you put your baby to your breast anytime they cry, you’re going to turn into a ‘human pacifier.’”

You’ve probably heard this said in online comments and message boards, or from nosy strangers, your in-laws, your ill-informed friend. People throw the term around casually, like it’s no big deal.

And OMG, I would cringe so hard when I heard that term. I still do. Let me tell you why.

I’ll start with the obvious. Telling a mom that she is using her breasts like a pacifier implies that the act of “comfort nursing” has no real value, especially from a nutritional perspective. It’s just a fact that pacifiers don’t offer nutrition, so if your breasts are being used like pacifiers, you must not be offering your baby nutrition, right?

That’s a big fat NOPE.

For this one, I’m going to put my lactation consultant hat on (I’m a board certified lactation consultant, an IBCLC). Here goes: Any time a baby suckles at the breast – even if very little milk is coming out – signals are being sent to a mother’s pituitary gland to release a hormone called prolactin, whose job it is to maintain or increase milk supply. Furthermore, a breast is never actually “empty” (really!) because if a baby suckles long enough even on a drained breast, another letdown can be triggered and more milk can flow. Even small amounts of milk offer nutrition and immunities.

When babies are little, they need to nurse on demand, according to their own needs and schedule in order to establish and maintain a good milk supply. So in essence, when you tell a mom that “comfort nursing” is not a good thing, you are potentially setting her up to decrease the amount of time she nurses her baby, which can have negative impacts on her supply in many cases.

Now, not all moms and babies need to nurse as frequently as I did to maintain a good supply, and some moms can even use actual pacifiers without sabotaging their milk supply. Pacifiers in and of themselves are not actually a bad thing. (I can’t really give out advice here about when a nursing mom should use one or not, because it is really an individual thing).

But the point is that breastfeeding moms – who are notoriously flooded with all kinds of bad advice, and whose attempts at breastfeeding are sabotaged right and left by unsupportive doctors, friends, families and workplaces – don’t need yet another roadblock to stop them from nursing freely and effectively.

Now, all that science-y, lactation consultant-y stuff aside, let’s talk about what’s really infuriating about the term “human pacifier.” When you compare a woman’s breast to a pacifier, you are actually objectifying her body. You are comparing her flesh and blood to a plastic, commercially manufactured item. And this is not okay.

I know what you are going to say. It’s just an expression, right? And hey, pacifiers aren’t the worst thing in the world. (They truly aren’t; I’m not knocking pacifiers!). So why not just go ahead and say that boobs are sometimes like binkies? No big deal, right?

Well, it is to women. Breastfeeding is a valiant act. Deciding to use your body to nourish your baby takes courage. We live in society that continues to sexualize breastfeeding, that doesn’t value women’s bodies or body autonomy, that continually shames women for breastfeeding in public – that devalues the real, natural, and selfless work that women do everyday to care for their families.

So comparing a woman’s breast to anything other that the amazing, nurturing, life-giving miracle that it is is utter bullshit. It’s damaging to women, to babies, and to families.

Any women who has held her breastfed baby in her arms and seen the joy and comfort nursing gives her baby will tell you how offended she is by the term “human pacifier.” Any woman who has struggled through cracked nipples, mastitis, cluster feeding, too short maternity leaves, and judgmental in-laws will tell you how devalued and under appreciated she feels by the term.

Any woman who has been harassed, abused, or a victim of the patriarchy in any way (spoiler alert: that’s all of us) will tell you that dehumanizing and degrading her body in this way in actually really gross and potentially very triggering.

Again, I know it’s just a term, a figure of speech. I’m not saying that everyone who has used the term is an asshole – no way, no how. I have friends who’ve used it, and I’ve probably used it jokingly myself.

But I am saying that we need to think seriously about what language like this means and the detrimental affect it can have on things like a woman’s breastfeeding journey and her self-image, not to mention the way in which it objectifies breasts and women’s bodies.

Bottom line: the term “human pacifier” is garbage, and it’s time we ditch it once and for all.

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